NORDEN, Neb. — The girl with the blue hair is twirling in the middle of the dance floor, her blue hair flying in a sea of black cowboy hats, her body shaking with laughter every time she loses her country dancing partner’s hand and her feet go skidding across the slick old oak.
Her name is Adrianna Trail. She drove five hours from Papillion to be here tonight. She drove five hours because earlier this summer she came here for the first time with her dance partner, Quinton Shaw, and she couldn’t believe this place was real.
She came all the way across the state of Nebraska, and will drive home tomorrow, because the Norden Barn Dance is the sort of thing that hooks you, makes anyone who twirls on this dance floor want to do it again, and a third time, and a 30th.
“Everybody has problems!” Adrianna yells to be heard over the band as she sits at a picnic table with Shaw and catches her breath between songs. “But if you do have problems, you don’t think about them when you are dancing. You don’t think about them here!”
There are not a lot of problems visible at the Norden Barn Dance tonight. Sure, it’s hotter than a three-dollar pistol outside. And, yes, the drought is on and the price of corn is in the tank and the band keeps stopping to fiddle with the recording equipment.
But the beer is ice cold and $2. The dance floor is getting crowded with rosy-cheeked ranch hands and two-steppin’ grannies and city slickers who earlier today were tubing the Niobrara. For the 117th year in a row — the 87th year inside this very barn — Keya Paha County is hosting a barn dance. It does, indeed, feel like a cure for whatever ails you.
“Where else have you seen a thing like this?” longtime resident Ronnie Worth asks as he stares at me, eyes bulging.
I shake my head. “I haven’t.”
“That’s right!” he yelps, slapping his hand on a picnic table in the beer garden. “That’s exactly right!”
A half-century ago, every town around here hosted a barn dance. The dances were a weekly part of life, the main form of Saturday night entertainment for western Nebraskans who worked hard during the week and then danced hard on the weekend.
For example: Andy Keogh was born in 1959. He attended his first barn dance in 1960.
“Our folks would bring us here in cradles,” says Keogh, who today is a board member of the Keya Paha County Ag Society, which runs the barn dances. “They would stick us under the bleachers and we would sleep, and they would dance.”
But of course the old belief that summer Saturday nights existed for dancing faded away in most every town in the Sand Hills. The hardcore dancers died or moved away. Parents stopped teaching their children how to do the country swing and the country two-step.
Except for here, in this one place a half-hour’s drive east of Valentine. Except for here in Norden, an unincorporated town hard up next to the South Dakota border and so tiny and isolated that it doesn’t show up on most maps.
Nobody is exactly sure why they still dance in Norden. Maybe it’s the barn itself, built at the outset of the Great Depression by local hands and so disorienting to the modern mind that when you step inside you could swear you just wandered onto a Hollywood movie set.
Maybe it’s luck, says Jim Ruther, president of the Keya Paha County Ag Society who, along with Andy Keogh, is tending bar tonight.
“I dunno,” Jim says. “Maybe it’s simple stubbornness.”
So nobody knows why, but everyone around here knows when. There are 10 Norden barn dances this summer, every other Saturday or so. If history holds, at least 250 people will show up at each one, a massive number when you consider that the entire population of Keya Paha County is 804. That attendance is expected to double for the Fair Dance, which happens after the county fair rodeo Saturday.
And everybody here knows how, too.
Just before 11 p.m. the band kicks into an old George Strait tune and a crush of Sand Hills humanity descends on the dance floor. A 7-year-old girl is dancing with a 9-year-old boy. A grandma is two-steppin’ with a young buck. Several married couples in cowboy gear glide effortlessly around the dance floor, looking like they have done this all their lives, because they have. Wide-eyed Lincoln college boys in cargo shorts take their tentative first steps onto the floor, looking like fawns trying not to fall on the ice.
Adrianna and Quinton dance in the middle of the floor, surrounded by the 20 or so other couples. Her blue hair is matted with sweat. His shirt is untucked and wrinkled. They have been to this dance together exactly twice. And, judging by the smiles plastered on their faces, a reporter knows to ask the following question: You will be back a third time, won’t you?
“Yes,” Adrianna shouts over the band. “As long as I have the gas money!”
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple, they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.